Do international students really “prop up frankly substandard courses”?

Another edifying day at the Conservative Party Conference

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

When I think about the current cabinet, I like to put their position in context by thinking about the people that have held the position before with nominally the same party in power.

So the Conservatives’ fifth-choice Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has been doing the rounds at conference making peculiar statements about international students.

International students, and their dependents, have apparently been coming over here in record numbers to spend money on goods and services – thus growing the economy – and this apparently won’t do.

An actual secretary of state

The inclusion of dependents in this rhetoric is deeply unpleasant – beside the obvious economic impact, there’s a basic human decency issue. We should allow international students the support of their loved ones while doing a course in a new country.

As she said on the fringe:

I think we have too many students coming in to this country who are propping up frankly substandard courses in inadequate institutions

Having just typed that out, I had to pause as my dogs were going mad. But there is a regulatory consequence here – could this be a hint that “low quality courses” may no longer be permitted to recruit international students?

Checking facts

Handily, last week saw the Office for Students put forward a tentative answer to the question of what is a “poor quality” course via the publication of the (B3) outcomes measure. Not even OfS is confident enough to use performance below the threshold on outcomes, continuation, or completion as a spur to direct regulatory action (they will consider the context before charging in), but maybe the Home Office could link it to Tier 4 visas.

So here is a plot of the performance of every provider in each subject area – the black dotted line is the threshold, and the size of the blob shows the number of students involved. I’ve defaulted to look at full-time first degree students (but you can use the filter to check elsewhere).

[Full screen]

Click on one of the dots and the chart at the bottom shows acceptances via UCAS in 2021, by domicile by subject and provider. Because OfS and UCAS use different levels of CAH, I’ve let you see all subjects at a given provider, with home acceptances in teal and international acceptances in red (overseas) and orange (EU).

A proxy

I’m using undergraduate UCAS acceptances as a proxy here – data on students by domicile, subjects, and provider is hard to come by. It’s fair to suggest that providers recruiting loads of international undergraduates may also be recruiting a lot of postgraduates.

But a brief play with this visualisation suggests something interesting – the subject/provider combinations below the threshold tend not to be places that recruit a lot of international students.

There’s literally no evidence that international students are “propping up frankly substandard courses in inadequate institutions”, even if we accept the problematic assumption that the apparatus of indicators and benchmarks OfS has assembled indicates either of those things. There are a couple of exceptions – but very much on a scale that proves the rule.

That’s the nice thing about transparency. Ministers can’t make nonsensical statements about higher education if we can easily check the facts.

One response to “Do international students really “prop up frankly substandard courses”?

  1. Perhaps Suella has been trawling around the Universities within a 30 mile radius of her constituency and discovered just how many overseas students are on money grubbing “I’ve got a UK degree” courses. With the Arts courses being heavily biased towards the Fuerdai in at least one of them (over 90% of the students attending there). And suitably qualified UK students being given the bums rush and having their offers rescinded when more ‘overseas’ students, with the associated higher fees, applied for courses than was anticipated.

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